And honestly, that’s okay. Cultural activity, conversations and products have always thrived both within and outside of establishment organisations.

When it comes to our online engagement, however, it feels like we haven’t moved on much in the past ten years. Too much of our online activity is broadcasting what we do, and not engaging collaboratively and creatively with our audiences.

The pandemic was an opportunity to properly explore and experiment with what a purely online presence means, and we grasped that opportunity. When confronted with just a handful of online channels to achieve our jobs, many of us finally confronted how digital can play a central part in arts and culture. As we emerge from the pandemic and grapple with new changes in audience behaviour, we need to continue that momentum and integrate digital engagement into everything that we do.

Audience behaviour is changing. We need to change too.

According to the Cultural Participation Monitor, 40% of the UK population engaged with online content published by an arts and culture organisation during the pandemic. Of those 40%, the most engaged group were 16-24 year olds and those with specific forms of disability. We also know for a fact that there was a boom in streaming, social media use and e-sports more generally.

The Cultural Participation Monitor has also identified a dramatic drop in people who said they engaged with online arts and culture within the past two months. The Indigo Act Two survey tracked people with an interest in online cultural content – going from 70% not interested before the pandemic, to 60% interested during the pandemic, and 46% possibly interested post-pandemic.

Essentially, arts and culture organisations fulfilled a specific need during the pandemic. Audiences wanted to see shows, explore exhibitions and find things to do online while we were all locked inside. Now that people can leave the house and do things in person, it’s on us to create online content which suits their changed needs. We can’t take our audiences for granted as we’re competing again with all the other online options for education, entertainment and killing time.

Innovation is necessary, not scary.

Innovation is often a hard ask with reduced budgets and workforces cut to the bone. And yet, as the pandemic proved, we can rally around ideas, experiment with products and do interesting things – as evidenced by the sector’s quick and largely successful adoption of livestreaming.

Innovation in online content and engagement require nothing like the investment of other R&D projects. Very often we have the tools, but we need to innovate with formats, skills and ways of working. For example, we already know that personality-driven, shortform video (i.e. TikTok) is a way of engaging new audiences in things you wouldn’t expect – just look at Francis Bourgeois’s infectious enthusiasm for trains on TikTok.

If we are going to remain relevant we need to experiment more with digital-first and hybrid content, and not only talk about our physical programme. We will always need to promote our offer, but the trend in how people use the internet is one of increasing specialisation and personalisation. People may have public profiles, but the true value of the internet is in smaller, more private communities – whether that’s a family Whatsapp group or your pottery class’s Discord channel.

We pump a lot of effort into posting as often as possible on every channel we think is important – usually Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. By and large, that approach is failing. We need to take a step back, examine who we are trying to engage, understand where they live on the internet and create content that is most useful for them. That means understanding what we are trying to achieve, understand our audiences both physically and digitally, but also to embed digital engagement into the whole organisation’s work – not just the marketing or content team/person.

How do we operate in Culture 3.0?

In the National Lottery Heritage Fund project Digitally Democratising Archives, we led a cohort of ten organisations ranging from local community groups to established archives, exploring how to use digital technologies to enable community archiving. One of the participating groups, Cinema Nation in Liverpool, brought the idea of Culture 3.0 to our attention.

The brainchild of Europeana’s Pier Luigi Sacco, Culture 3.0 (to cut a long theory short) tracks how digital technologies and interconnectivity have empowered everyone with cheap, accessibile technology and networks to create, share and sell culture on their own terms – bypassing cultural organisations almost entirely.

A bugbear of mine is that cultural organisations are still often organised in 19th- and 20th-century power structures, and undervalue digital roles and skills. On the internet we cannot rely on our physical presence or prestige - the playing field is levelled. If we neglect important topics, others will fill that vacuum online. If we do not keep up with content trends, others will take advantage and do it instead. If we neglect to horizon-scan and prepare for the trends of the future, we will always be playing catch-up.

What we can do

I feel like this has all sounded a little pessimistic so far, and that’s unfair. There are organisations out there doing interesting and boundary-pushing things, but not everybody needs to be pushing those boundaries. Simply investing in the time, skills and equipment required to keep up with basic content trends is already a massive step forward, allowing our organisations to spread their creative wings instead of putting out fires and constantly promoting rather than also engaging.

For me, the solutions are a mix of:

  • Sandboxing. Digital and content innovation does not come from a rigid project plan, and we don’t give ourselves enough licence to play, experiment and share our power with creatives. Could you set aside 1-2 weeks of the year to get creative people together to tackle a problem or opportunity and experiment with something original?
  • Find our niche. We don’t have to do everything. Part of our purpose is to inspire and support creativity among our communities, and we have the assets: buildings, equipment, skills and sometimes budget. Our niche may not be to become TikTok stars, but we might share our assets to platform the creators of the future.
  • Be targeted. Being on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram reaches a broad audience. How can we be where our audiences and communities are? Might your niche actually be on Reddit, or a Discord Channel, or Tumblr?
  • Pivot to engagement. We too often jump to the ‘Convert’ section of the marketing funnel. What can we do to simply make people aware of and interested in arts and culture?
  • Digital transformation. This is a whole-organisation effort, and digital is already relevant to every role. That needs to be confronted head-on – no more piecemeal adaptation and patching over how digital is affecting how we do our jobs. It is not just the marketing and content person/team’s responsibility to plan for and produce content for online audiences.
  • Be adventurous. Which is a hard sell after the past few years. I just want to lie down. But we need to find the same spirit of experimentation and common purpose that sparked so much creative digital content in the early pandemic.